Respectable Accomodation?

Douglas Wilson wrote a good word in an article reflecting on the death of Christopher Hitchens, “Christopher Hitchens Has Died, Doug Wilson Reflects“.  As I read and interacted with Hitchens’ writings, I found that Hitchens’ was likeable.  I haven’t found the same to be true about the others who are of the same philosophical ilk as Hitchens, such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.  Consequently, the news of Hitchens’ death saddened me.  What is even more sad is that Hitchens’ views led him down a path that now is unalterable.  The Lord knows those who are His (2 Timothy 2:19).  If Hitchens repented of his sins and placed his faith in Christ, the Lord knows it and has welcomed Hitchens into heaven on the merits of His Son, Jesus Christ.  If he didn’t, the Lord knows this too and Hitchens will spend an eternity in hell away from the presence of the Lord he rejected (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

One part of Wilson’s article caught my attention because I’m teaching a class at church on the gospel and evangelism.  This Sunday we will talk about the importance of knowing, believing, and defending our faith.  Wilson mentioned this in his article.  You cannot approach a person like Hitchens and be tentative about your faith.  You cannot strive for respectability and accommodation at the same time.  You either believe it with conviction or why bother.  I hope this citation spurs you on to be a Christian who holds your faith with conviction instead of seeking to accommodate for the sake of respectability.  It won’t work.  Here’s what Wilson said,

So we [Hitchens and Wilson] got on well with each other, because each of us knew where the other one stood. Eugene Genovese, before he became a believer, once commented on the tendency that some have to try to garner respect by giving away portions, big or small, of what they profess to believe. “If other religions offer equally valid ways to salvation and if Christianity itself may be understood solely as a code of morals and ethics, then we may as well all become Buddhists or, better, atheists. I intend no offense, but it takes one to know one. And when I read much Protestant theology and religious history today, I have the warm feeling that I am in the company of fellow unbelievers” (The Southern Front, pp. 9–10). Ironically, the branch of the faith most interested in getting the “cultured despisers” to pay us some respect is really not that effective, and this is a strategy that can frequently be found on the pointed end of its own petard. Respectability depends on not caring too much about respectability. Unbelievers can smell accommodation, and when someone like Christopher meets someone who actually believes all the articles in the Creed, including that part about Jesus coming back from the dead, it delights him. Here is someone actually willing to defend what is being attacked. Militant atheists are often exasperated with opponents whose strategy appears to be “surrender slowly.”


The End of the Road for the Historical Jesus Quest

This month’s feature article in Christianity Today is “The Jesus We’ll Never Know” by Scot McKnight. I’d describe my experience after reading this article like entering an air-conditioned room on a sultry summer day.   Absolutely refreshing!

In the article, McKnight refers to the futility of the quest for the historical Jesus.  Though many people in our churches won’t be familiar with the names and objectives of this endeavor, we find its pull in the currents of contemporary culture and church life.  One well-known example is Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code

The historical Jesus pursuit seeks to answer questions such as “who was this Jesus of Nazareth?” and “what was his agenda?”  The scholars in historical Jesus quests take the evidence in the Gospels and sift it through critical methods and often liberal presuppositions.  The Jesus that emerges is far different from the Jesus of orthodox Christianity.  This quest has come in about three phases (cf. Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for Jesus of Nazareth [InterVarsity Press, 1997], 9-13).  From about the 1970’s through today, third search continues.

But now, McKnight, who is an insider to historical Jesus studies, says “the era is over.” 

McKnight begins his article by highlighting the interesting results of a psychological test he conducts on the opening day of his class on Jesus of Nazareth.  The first part of the text asks questions about Jesus’ persoinality.  The second part of the tests asks questions about the student’s personality.  McKnight says that the strikingly uniform conclusion from this test is that everyone thinks Jesus is like them.  He observes,

Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves. If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.

This is true of the historical Jesus studies as well—which is a pertinent reminder about the importance of presuppositions.  One of the well-known names in historical Jesus studies, Albert Schweitzer, noted, Christ “is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well” (Tyrrell on the German scholar Harnack in Tyrrell, Christianity in the Crossroads, 44 in Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 490, n. 24).  

Following the article, CT offered N.T. Wright and Craig Keener an opportunity to respond to McKnight’s article by asking, “Should we abandon studying the Historical Jesus?”  Both answer “no.”  They contend that historical Jesus pursuits add value to the discussion.  Keener is probably right to point out that, “quests for the historical Jesus come and go, but no sooner are postmortems pronounced for one than another quest in a new form seems to rise.” 

Nevertheless, as other scholars who have invested themselves in this quest conclude, “the historical Jesus game has run its course and it cannot deliver the original Jesus [the Jesus found in the four gospels]”

The shortcoming and futility of the historical Jesus quest is summarized fabulously by McKnight as he closes out his article,

One day, while editing the final draft, I came across these words from Romans 4:25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”

This is what I said to myself: As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can’t. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much.

This is music to my ears and to the ears of all who cherish the Jesus of the gospels.  For the Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus that we proclaim and that our world so desperately needs. 

The best defense against future historical Jesus enterprises is to go on the offensive.  Let pulpits burn with the apostolic message of the death and resurrection of Christ.  I, for one, intend to do just that.   

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— [2] the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— [3] that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. [4] And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4, ESV)

“Militant Mysticism”: Rob Bell and the Word of Truth

I’ve just finished preaching through Ephesians 1:3-14.  I concluded the series on this portion of Ephesians yesterday with vv. 13-14,

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, [14] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. 

There is enough content here to preach at least two or three messages.  Incidentally, Martin Lloyd-Jones preached seven sermons from Ephesians 1:13-14 (Lloyd-Jones’ exposition of Ephesians is found in an eight volume set.  Volume one, God’s Ultimate Purpose, contains his sermons from Ephesians 1, including the ones on vv. 13-14).  Two phrases are found in v. 13 that describe the Scripture, “the word of truth” and “the gospel of your salvation.”  Together they offer a comprehensive picture of the Bible. 

The Bible is the word of truth.  In the ESV, the phrase “word of truth” is found four times (Psalm 119:43; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:18). The phrase in the original, ton logon tes aletheias, is found five times in the NT (2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:18).

The Bible contains the gospel of your salvation.  The Bible expresses the message of the gospel, Christ’s death for our sin and resurrection from the dead, which is relevant to all generations because it redeems the sin-captive heart (Romans 1:16).   

John Calvin comments on these phrases,

Two epithets are here applied to the gospel,—the  word of truth and the gospel of your salvation.  Both deserve our careful attention.  Nothing is more earnestly attempted by Satan than to lead us either to doubt or to despise the gospel. Paul therefore furnishes us with two shields, by which we may repel both temptations. In opposition to every doubt, let us learn to bring forward this testimony, that the gospel is not only certain truth, which cannot deceive, but is, by way of eminence, (kat’ exoken) the word of truth, as if strictly speaking, there were no truth but truth itself.  If the temptation be to contempt or dislike of the gospel, let us remember that its power and efficacy have been manifested in bringing to us salvation (Calvin, Commentaries, 21:207).  

As I was thinking on the description Paul uses for Scripture in Ephesians 1:13, “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” I recalled an interview with Rob Bell.  Rob Bell is the featured speaker in a popular series of short films entitled NOOMA.  According to the NOOMA website, these films are “a series of short films that explore our world from a perspective of Jesus. NOOMA is an invitation to search, question, and join the discussion.”  I’ve watched a couple of them.  Rob Bell is also an author, speaker, and founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand, Rapids, MI.  As of 2005, the church attracts over 10,000 people to its two Sunday services each week.  

Mark Galli, Christianity Today’s senior managing editor, interviewed Rob Bell last Spring.  The interview appeared in the April 2009 edition of CT.  We find some very telling statements about Bell’s view of truth and the gospel.   



Rob Bell and “the word of truth”

Mark Galli: You’re essentially reframing the gospel—at least the gospel you inherited, the gospel we have known as the gospel in North America for the last couple hundred years.

Rob Bell: I am leery of people who have very clear ideas of what they’re doing from outside of themselves: “You have to understand that I’m doing this and doing this.” I would say that for 10 years, I have tried to invite people to trust Jesus. You can trust this Jesus. You can trust him past, present, future; sins, mistakes, money, sexuality. I think this Jesus can be trusted.

I often put it this way: If there is a God, some sort of Divine Being, Mind, Spirit, and all of this is not just some random chance thing, and history has some sort of movement to it, and you have a connection with Whatever—that is awesome. Hard and awesome and creative and challenging and provoking.

And there is this group of people who say that whoever that being is came up among us and took on flesh and blood—Andrew Sullivan talks about this immense occasion the world could not bear. So a church would be this odd blend of swagger—an open tomb, come on—and humility and mystery. The Resurrection accounts are jumbled and don’t really line up with each other—I really relate to that. Yet something momentous has burst forth in the middle of history. You just have to have faith, and you get caught up in something.

I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I’m really absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know.

Rob Bell and “the gospel of your salvation”

Mark Galli: How would you present this gospel on Twitter?

Rob Bell: I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.

Well, his lack of specificity led to justified criticism on his understanding of the gospel.  Indeed, Bell got the gospel woefully wrong.  Then, to reinforce his erroneous view of the gospel, he said this in an interview with the Boston Globe on September 27, 2009,

Q. What does it mean to you to be an evangelical?

A. I take issue with the word to a certain degree, so I make a distinction between a capital E and a small e. I was in the Caribbean in 2004, watching the election returns with a group of friends, and when Fox News, in a state of delirious joy, announced that evangelicals had helped sway the election, I realized this word has really been hijacked. I find the word troubling, because it has come in America to mean politically to the right, almost, at times, anti-intellectual. For many, the word has nothing to do with a spiritual context.

Q. OK, how would you describe what it is that you believe?

A. I embrace the term evangelical, if by that we mean a belief that we together can actually work for change in the world, caring for the environment, extending to the poor generosity and kindness, a hopeful outlook. That’s a beautiful sort of thing.

Then again, in the October 2009 edition of Christianity Today a short piece entitled “Tweeting the Gospel: Rob Bell Tries Again,” they quote his tweet on October 5, 2009 which offers a definition of the gospel,

The gospel is the counterintuitive, joyous, exuberant news that Jesus has brought the unending, limitless, stunning love of God to even us. 

Some analysis is on order.  It is important to note once again that Rob Bell is the pastor of a mega-church not some armchair theologian.  This is a pastor-teacher, an author who is teaching people about the gospel.  It profoundly concerns me when pastors like Rob Bell sound so unconvinced about the gospel.  I’m also troubled by his definition of the word “evangelical.”  Where is the evangel in his definition of evangelical?  The Bible is “the word of truth” which should be proclaimed by men absolutely convinced of its message.  Charles Spurgeon said,

the true minister of Christ knows the true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains” (Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 72).

I will offer two observations on the debacle of Rob Bell’s attempt to define the gospel.  First, concerning “the word of truth” what truth is there in what he said: “I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I’m really absolutely sure of some things that I don’t quite know.”  This is non-sense.  His odd statement seems to grow out of, in part, his “narrative theology.”  It is statements like Bell’s that lead to humorous and justified caricatures like these:

(You can find the entire, hilarious collection here)

We can and should proclaim our faith with conviction!  Imagine if Luke wrote to Theophilus in Luke 1:4, “that you may be absolutely sure of the things we don’t quite know.”  Thankfully this was not the case.   Instead, Luke shares the unshakable conviction that the Christian faith is convincing and knowable.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, [2] just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, [3] it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, [4] that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

The Bible is indeed “the word of truth.”  It is inerrant!  It is trustworthy!  It is the word of knowable, unchanging, life-transforming, mind-stabilizing truth!  Instead of expressing the conviction that the Bible is “the word of truth” Bell is grooming a generation who will not live with the conviction that the Bible is “the word of truth” but rather who will live by the motto, “what is truth?” (Pilate’s response to Jesus in John 18:38).    

Second, concerning “the gospel of your salvation.”  What gospel are people supposed to hear and believe when they listen to Rob Bell?  What one hears from Rob Bell is an incomplete picture of the gospel, at best.  Frankly, Bell has blown it when it comes to defining the gospel.  When you read his definition of an evangelical it contains more proposed legislation from a socially liberal lawmaker than divine truth.  According to Bell, being evangelical means “caring for the environment”?!  Gimme a break.  Is there even a modicum of kerygma in his definition of “evangelical?”  Answer: no!   In fact, D.A. Carson states that the genius of the NOOMA films is that they are “gospel free” to a biblically illiterate person.  Conversely, a person with Biblical knowledge will fill in gospel truth when they watch the videos (listen to the four-minute audio clip of D.A. Carson on Rob Bell here).  In other words these videos teach moralism to an unregenerate person and they illustrate Biblical truth to a biblically literate person. 

How timely are the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking (Isaiah 59:14-15a). 

Sadly, truth and the gospel are strangely lacking from the most unexpected people: pastors, like Rob Bell, who are to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).  They are also conspicuously absent from the most unexpected places: churches which are to be the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). 

We can rest our hope fully on “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation.”  I encourage you to faithfully read and meditate on the Bible in 2010.

A Genuine Christian Community and Depression

I came across this thought-provoking citation in the March publication of Christianity Today.  CT highlighted the issue of depression in their March edition.  Derek Keefe interviewed John Ortberg on how the church can help those who are depressed.  Here is one question posed to Ortberg,

What preventive measures can churches take [to help those struggling with depression]?

[Ortberg] When churches are being effective, creating authentic communities where intimate connection is offered, this is the single biggest contribution they can make. A medical sociologist named Janice Egeland has done some really interesting research on depression among the Amish. One of her findings was that rates of reactive depression [an inappropriate state of depression that is precipitated by events in the person’s life] are significantly lower among the Amish than among all other segments of the population.


In comparison, among evangelicals as a whole, there is virtually no difference in the incidence of reactive depression as compared to the general population. Part of the explanation is that we evangelicals are much more a part of our culture, and have a ways to go to create a community where people are so connected that there is a significant difference in the incidence of depression.


The Amish, of course, take great pains to separate from the broader culture. For evangelicals as a whole, a separation that radical is probably not likely. We see our calling to be “in the world but not of it.” But is it possible to be in the world, as most evangelicals are, but still part of a community that is alternative enough that it would actually change the incidence of depression? That would be a really interesting experiment (Keefe, “Connecting to Hope,” Christianity Today [March 2009], 29).

The larger point I want to highlight is simply this, that a loving and genuine church body can have therapeutic effects on those who are hurting emotionally, physically, and mentally in the body.